I’ve been a yo-yo dieter all my life – here’s my story of the ups and downs. Every time I lost weight, I put more back on. This perpetual state of failure took me to the point of total despair. I decided a few years ago that I wouldn’t try to diet any more, as I always ended up worse off. I actually came to fear weight-loss, because of the inevitability of the weight-gain which would follow. I’m not alone – a survey in 2014 found that 60% of yo-yo dieters will try up to 20 diets in their lifetime.
What changed for me in September 2015, was that I found a way to alter my mental attitudes towards food and health, to make a holistic change to the way I live. This has underpinned not a successful diet, but a total change of lifestyle which happens to have led to weight-loss; one which I ultimately believe is sustainable in the long-term; and one which carries with it the promise of not regaining that weight, but instead successfully breaking that yo-yo cycle.
Yo-yo dieting has long been associated with a range of health issues, including hormone imbalances, arthritis and osteoporosis. But from this study it appears that yo-yo dieting is harmful in a potentially much more serious way – it harms your heart.
What goes down, comes back up – faster
When you diet, your body thinks it’s being starved. It will protect itself, as anyone staying on a weight-loss programme for any length of time will tell you, by holding on to those pounds for all it’s worth. Eventually though, you will lose weight, and your body will get used to functioning at a lower metabolic level. But when the diet ends and normal eating resumes, with this new slower metabolism, you will gain weight rapidly. It’s happened to me, again and again. The last time, I put on a pound a week for over 18 months – I just couldn’t seem to stop it.
Yo-yo dieting is more harmful to the heart than obesity
The AHA study analysed data from over 158,000 women over the age of 50. It found that over 11 years, women of normal weight who confessed to yo-yo dieting more than 4 times in their lives, were 3.5 times more likely to die from a heart attack than women whose weight stayed stable, even if they were obese.
Losing weight, it appears, is all very well, but it’s the regaining weight – which has that yo-yo inevitability about it – that stresses the body, increasing heart rate, raising blood pressure and elevating blood sugar levels. The problems accumulate, as these elevated levels do not fall back down during the next yo-yo cycle, leading to worsening health and elevated risk over time.
And that’s not all…
The articles about this study cover other issues too, including problems with bone density, fertility, skin elasticity, hair condition, gum disease… and possible correlation to some cancers. If you’re a yo-yo dieter, even if you’re not obese, it’s not a pretty picture.
I wasn’t just a yo-yo dieter, I was obese too. I still am, according to the BMI charts. I came to fear dieting, for the yo-yo factor – and many others will understand that fear. The way to break the cycle is not through the food you eat, or the exercise you do. Well, it is, but it doesn’t begin there. Those are just the tactics. The way to break the cycle begins in the mind.
Success starts in your head – that’s where you can learn to tap into your motivation, positivity and resourcefulness. It’s where you can flick the switches that mean it’s not all about willpower – which eventually fails – but about designing a different view of yourself, and creating a different and compelling vision for your future; one which puts the wind beneath your wings.
I’ll be writing quite a bit more about this in the coming weeks.
You might be wondering how it’s possible for a woman – educated, intelligent and with a healthy understanding of the tenets of good nutrition – to get to 270lb (that’s a fulsome 19 stone, UK). Indeed, I wonder myself sometimes. I watch those programmes on TV featuring overweight people trying to lose the pounds, and invariably they’re shown gorging on triple servings of hamburgers, kebabs and curries, or piles of donuts and chocolate, indulging in midnight fridge raids or slurping gallons of full-fat cola or beer. And that’s just not me. At least, I don’t think it is.
So how did it happen?
As a child I was not without what they politely used to call puppy fat, though it probably wouldn’t even be remarked upon today. Even then I had a weakness for savouries, and would buy two or three bags of crisps (that would be potato chips for Stateside readers) each day from the school tuck-shop and chomp the lot at break-time. But I got lots of exercise to mitigate this greed. I would walk 1½ miles a day on my journey to school. I enjoyed ice skating and swimming at the weekends, and judo, rounders and netball within school hours; I tolerated tennis in the summer but I hated hockey in the winter as my chubby thighs would chafe in coarse woollen shorts. But if a little podgy here and there, I was nonetheless fit and in robust health.
The puppy fat fell away when I discovered… boys. Now, that’s motivation. My first serious boyfriend was a skinny youth and call me precious, but I didn’t think a girl should weigh more than her boyfriend. The year I spent with this guy was a constant struggle to stay below 126lb (9 stone). I’ve not been close to that magic figure in the 38 years since then.
A few years later, happily engaged to be married, my weight had crept up to 154lb (11 stone) – a by-product of Friday and Saturday evening drinking, cheap takeaways on-the-run and having acquired a motorcycle, which swiftly overtook my legs as the preferred mode of transportation. I took myself off to Weightwatchers and shook off 22lb in preparation for the Big Day, earning myself a Lifetime membership in the process. Weightwatchers clearly knew something I didn’t yet realise about the life of a yo-yo dieter. I’d reached 132lb (around 9½ stone). At that weight today I’d be beyond triumphant, but back then it felt like defeat, that I couldn’t make it all the way to 9 stone. And even that didn’t last; looking back at the pictures, I was probably was already close to 140lb (10 stone) by the time I walked down the aisle.
Over the next few contented married years, the weight went back on, and a quite a bit more besides. I passed through 168lb (12 stone). I remember going on a holiday to Devon, booking on a pony trekking day and wondering if the horse would have the strength to carry me. Back in the mid-1980’s, 12 stone felt… massive. But I still managed to put on at least another 28lb over the next three years – I think I got to 14 stone and something. I was cooking hearty entry-level supper meals for both of us, but consuming much the same in portion size as my husband. He was in a very physically active job and though I still swam at weekends and walked a little, I was desk-bound for work. That’s a recipe for laying down the fat, but I hardly even realised what I was doing. Relaxed and secure, I had let down my guard – and the climb through the pounds and stones was steady but relentless.
By 1988 things had changed. With divorce looming and my soon to be ex-husband and I sharing our house yet trying to live considerate separate lives whilst it sold, the weight once again fell away. Not wanting to spend time at home, for several months I rarely ate a decent sit-down meal; I filled time swimming and playing squash. Afraid that I would drink too much in this unsettling period, I gave up alcohol altogether for a while. Stress aggravated my digestive system too. This was all the silver lining to the cloud of marital breakdown. Unintended it may have been, all told, I lost 56lb (4 stone). I remember watching the faces of the men at work change, and enjoying their attention, as my body changed shape. As I emerged from my marriage, it was as if I were shedding a skin. At 28 years old, I looked the best I’d ever looked and it was an exciting time as a result. I joined a gym for something to fill my single-girl spare-time, and spent several evenings a week maintaining my new shape – even dating my personal trainer for a while. I bought a bicycle and tested myself on the London to Brighton Bike Ride. I’d done no training but I took it slowly and made it in one piece.
But it didn’t last. Over the next decade or so, my weight crept slowly, slowly upward again. Work and career became more intense and evenings at the gym more intermittent as a result. For the first time in years, I didn’t have a regular squash partner, and a succession of short-lived relationships had left me jaded. I don’t remember much about this time, except that it was tense, unsettling and not particularly happy. Work was challenging and stressful and I suffered panic attacks. I would drive for hours to visit clients, snacking on a passenger-seat full of crisps, chocolate bars and shrink-wrapped sandwiches. I developed a MacDonald’s breakfast habit and a KFC lunch habit. That was all bad, and I cannot hide from it.
But the truth is, even without those bad habits, you don’t have to eat that much over and above your daily requirement for the excess pounds to show up, slowly and steadily, and latch on tight. This time it took the whole decade, but I reached 225lb (16 stone).
In 2001 the double-whammy of a seriously toxic relationship and a second redundancy put me in a shit-or-bust frame of mind. I wanted to start working for myself, and I was determined not to be caught out by another low-life. Bearing my gold Lifetime Membership card, I reintroduced myself to Weightwatchers. Things fell into place with the Points system and over 6 months, I lost 50lb (3½ stone). I joined the gym again, showing up three mornings a week at 6:30am and twice at the weekends. This time it was not happy accident but relentless determination – and it paid off.
But… but… but… as soon as I took my eye off the ball, the weight surged back on again. And just like every time before, more went on than had come off. This time, already in my 40’s, it seemed to happen so fast. I shed a stone or so following a Jason Vale Juicing Retreat in 2006, but I couldn’t sustain the success. By 2007 I was doing battle with the menopause too. It was like slamming into a brick wall. Fatigued, I struggled to motivate myself to do any exercise at all. My eating patterns became lazy – Chinese take-aways, poke-and-ping meals, quick-fix junk food and stuff-on-toast – for months on end. The result was predictable; despite a few feeble attempts at weight loss with Atkins, juicing and raw food, a too rapid climb to my highest ever weight – 270lb (19 stone).
To be honest, I thought it would be worse. I’d expected 20 stone when I finally braved the scales. I hadn’t weighed myself for a year and the last time I’d jumped on the scales I’d seen that same figure. That it hadn’t risen in 12 months was, bizarrely, excellent news!
That’s how I got to 270lb. On the way, I’ve lost close to 200lb and put on probably half as much again. I actually got scared of dieting, because each time, I put more weight back on. I cannot afford for that to happen again this time. Already in morbid obesity territory at 270lb, any more than that would surely be tantamount to suicide.
So this time, I’m taking a different approach. This time it’s all about healthy lifestyle, not dieting. I don’t know if it will work, but I’ve been at it for a few months now and with 35lb already shifted, I think it stands a good chance of being sustainable. I am actually enjoying the changes rather than suffering them. Maybe… just maybe this different mind-set will see me through.